How 13 Famous Historical Soldiers Actually Died



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Vote up the most intriguing endings.

Some may say it's good for absolutely nothing, but when it comes to carving a historical legacy, war is pretty darn useful. Many of the most well-known historical figures owe their lasting fame to their military prowess (and often little else). Some famous soldiers perish in combat, others go in less noble ways, and some live to ripe old ages despite their devil-may-care approaches to danger.

For a place in this collection, the individuals must have personally seen combat, so only the kings and generals who actually got their hands dirty can appear here. From the tiny sniper who nearly saw his 100th birthday to the great conqueror who didn't make it to 33, this list looks at some of history's most famous soldiers and how they met their ends - or at least our best explanation based on the limited evidence available.

Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • 1
    321 VOTES

    Cause: Friendly fire, age 28.

    California native Patrick Daniel “Pat” Tillman Jr. turned down a multi-million dollar football contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the US Army in 2002. Deeply moved by the 9/11 attacks, he turned his back on a lucrative playing career to fight for his country alongside his brother Kevin. He became disillusioned with the War on Terror and was especially critical of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. 

    After serving in Iraq, Tillman was redeployed to Afghanistan, where he was apparently killed in an enemy ambush in 2004. He was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. Initial reports were of a tragic young hero who gave his life in defense of his country when he could have lived a life of fame and luxury. That was the official narrative at least.

    It turned out the military knew far more than they were letting on about Tillman’s demise. It wasn’t at the hands of the enemy, but by his own comrades. He was killed by friendly fire, a fact officials were very much aware of but covered up. The controversy led to an investigation and a Congressional Report into Tillman’s death and into the sensationalized rescue of US Army supply clerk Jessica Lynch. The result was a damning verdict:

    Neither case involved an act of omission. The misinformation was not caused by overlooking or 

    misunderstanding relevant facts. Instead, in both cases affirmative acts created new facts that were significantly different than what the soldiers in the field knew to be true. 

    And in both cases the fictional accounts proved to be compelling public narratives at difficult times in the war.

    • Age: Dec. at 27 (1976-2004)
    • Birthplace: Fremont, California
    321 votes
  • 2
    335 VOTES

    Cause: Burned at the stake, age 19.

    Strictly speaking, French heroine Joan of Arc didn't actually directly participate in combat. She was more an inspirational mascot than a soldier, but she did get far closer to the fray than was good for her. She was wounded twice in action - once in the shoulder at Orleans and once in the thigh at Paris. She might not have personally felled an English soldier, but there was little denying her impact on the long conflict with France’s deadly rival.

    Joan was captured not by the English but by their allies, the Burgundians, in 1430 and imprisoned in a castle in the north of France. Despite several escape attempts, including a leap from a tower window, she was eventually handed over to the English for trial. She wasn’t actually condemned to death in the show trial, but was forced to sign a confession and sentenced to life imprisonment. She reneged on this “confession” a few days later and then received a death sentence. 

    The Maid of Orleans was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 at the young age of 19. Her remains were burned once more to be certain she was truly gone. The charred remains were then dumped in the River Seine. After the French victory in the Hundred Years' War, her case was reopened and she was cleared of heresy posthumously some 20 years after her untimely demise. In the centuries since, Joan has inspired countless works of art and was canonized in 1920.

    • Age: Dec. at 19 (1412-1431)
    • Birthplace: Domrémy-la-Pucelle, France
    335 votes
  • Rodger Wilton Young
    Photo: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    283 VOTES

    Rodger Wilton Young

    Cause: Killed in action, age 25.

    Rodger Wilton Young was a man small in stature but big in heart. As a youth, he was injured in a high school basketball game and suffered from hearing loss and poor eyesight as a result. He joined the Ohio National Guard in 1939 (he wouldn’t have passed an Army medical exam) and was called up to fight in the Pacific when the US entered WWII.

    Young was a model soldier who rose to the rank of sergeant, but later asked for a demotion back to private. His hearing was getting even worse and he worried he’d be a danger to the men under his command. When he landed with his unit on the island of South Georgia, they were caught in an ambush and Young was wounded.

    With little thought of self-preservation, he crawled toward the enemy position to draw fire away from his comrades. With his last ounce of strength, he lobbed a grenade into the enemy position to save the lives of his unit - at the cost of his own. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his sacrifice. His name was also immortalized in the song The Ballad of Rodger Young by Frank Loesser. 

    Another reference to Young can be found in a strange place: the 1997 sci-fi film Starship Troopers. One of the spaceships is named after him, and the last stand of one of the characters loosely refers to Young’s last moments.

    • Age: Dec. at 25 (1918-1943)
    • Birthplace: Tiffin, Ohio
    283 votes
  • Lyudmila Pavlichenko
    Photo: Израиль Абрамович Озерский / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Cause: Stroke, age 58.

    The most prominent of the roughly 2000 female Soviet snipers who served during WWII, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was credited with 309 kills in a few short months after the German invasion of the USSR began in 1941. Known as "Lady Death," she was wounded in action and withdrawn from combat to tour the US in 1942 to rally support for a new front in Europe.

    Along the way, she struck up an unlikely friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The two were reunited in very different circumstances some years after the conflict. Amid Cold War tensions, they allegedly had to slip away from minders to enjoy a private moment of reminiscence.

    The postwar years were hard for Lady Death; like many Soviet veterans, there wasn't much in the way of state support. Pavlichenko suffered from alcoholism, depression, and PTSD for years. She succumbed to a stroke in 1974, at just 58 years old.

    • Age: Dec. at 58 (1916-1974)
    • Birthplace: Bila Tserkva, Ukraine
    298 votes
  • Leonidas I
    Photo: YukioSanjo / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
    231 VOTES

    Cause: Perished at the Battle of Thermopylae, age 60.

    A certain amount of mystery surrounds the demise of Sparta’s most famous king. The accounts of his life and noble final sacrifice were written long after the events took place, and as none of the Spartans who were present lived to tell, we don’t have an awful lot to go on. All we know for certain is that the 60-year-old (much older than he’s been depicted in films) king perished in 480 BCE in the Battle of Thermopylae.

    A combined Greek force that numbered around 7,000 held a narrow pass for three days against a much larger Persian army. That was until a local sold out his fellow Greeks by showing the Persians a hidden path around the Greek position. Hopelessly surrounded, the 300 Spartans and quite a few others (Helots, Thebans, and Thespians) chose to stay behind so the rest of the army could escape and live to fight another day. The surrounded rear guard fought to the death and none were left alive by the day’s end.

    Herodotus tells a fine tale about Leonidas’s body being fought over by the Greeks and Persians. Four times the Persians snatched the body and four times the Greeks fought valiantly to get it back. This Homeric story is most probably just a myth used to add a little color to the account of the conflict. The most likely explanation is that the aged king was simply cut down toward the end of the battle and lay undetected among the thousands of others slain that day.

    • Age: Dec. at 60 (539 BC-479 BC)
    • Birthplace: Sparta, Greece
    231 votes
  • Spartacus
    Photo: Hermann Vogel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    155 VOTES

    Cause: Slain in battle, age 32.

    It's a story film and TV executives, writers, and artists love to tell over and over: the one of the escaped gladiator turned revolutionary - Spartacus. It turns out not much is known of the actual historical figure behind the legend, and his end is equally mysterious.

    One account states that in the prelude to the final battle of the Third Servile War, Spartacus dismounted and slayed his horse in front of his men:

    First, when his horse was brought to him, he drew his sword and killed it, saying that the enemy had plenty of good horses which would be his if he won, and, if he lost, he would not need a horse at all.

    According to the same historian (a Greek writing long after the events), Spartacus made straight for the opposing commander, Crassus, and even personally cut down two centurions along the way, but couldn't reach the wealthy general. 

    Even after his army broke and ran, Spartacus wouldn't flee and fought to the bitter end, surrounded by Romans. While this is probably a bit of a rhetorical flourish (as was the horse anecdote), the most likely explanation is that he was simply slain in the midst of a battle his army had little hope of winning.

    • Age: Dec. at 38 (108 BC-70 BC)
    • Birthplace: Thrace
    155 votes